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Details of wasted vaccine doses kept secret

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The Investigator

March 25, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Vaccine secrecy, Medicaid surge, unemployment hurdles, emergency relief, per diem ban, spitting legislation, U.S. Capitol attack, and herd immunity.

The Wolf administration won't release details about wasted coronavirus vaccine in Pennsylvania, citing a decades-old law that gives the state the authority to keep such information private, but which legal experts say also affords officials broad discretion to release it.

The state's Department of Health denied a public records request from Spotlight PA reporter Ese Olumhense seeking documentation of vaccine doses that providers did not administer because of expiration, damage, or other factors — all information gathered by the state. Spotlight PA plans to appeal the decision.

The department did say it counts just 1,589 of the more than 2.3 million doses administered as of Feb. 26 as wasted, but won't say if certain providers were disproportionately responsible for that waste.

Also this week, Olumhense and Spotlight PA reporter Ed Mahon found Medicaid enrollment grew by nearly 13% — or more than 366,000 people — in Pennsylvania in 2020, exceeding single-year growth seen during the Great Recession and demonstrating the unique breadth of the pandemic's harm.

Expanded eligibility rules are part of the reason why, but experts say the pandemic has only highlighted an existing need, long-running access hurdles, and a partisan urge to rein in Medicaid enrollments and costs. 

And finally, Spotlight PA reporter Rebecca Moss looked at potential pitfalls on the road ahead as the state's already strained unemployment system braces for a fresh wave of jobless claims.

Thousands of Pennsylvanians will reach the end of their state unemployment benefits this month and next as they approach the one-year anniversary of the date they first lost work during the pandemic. Some will be required to refile to continue receiving checks, raising concerns about the potential for more clerical chaos and payment disruptions for those who can least afford it.

On a related note: If you helped process Pennsylvania unemployment claims in the past year, in any capacity, Spotlight PA wants to hear from you. A short survey can be found here. Your response won't be shared or published without your consent.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

» If you learned something from today's edition, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA now so someone else can tomorrow.


"While I appreciate Dr. Levine's service and responsiveness to my office ... she has not earned a promotion.”

—Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), one of 48 senators who voted against confirming ex-Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine to become assistant U.S. health secretary. Republicans had criticized Levine's response to COVID-19 in nursing homes.

» The Fettermans: Join Spotlight PA at 5 p.m. April 6 for a conversation and reader Q&A with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Second Lady Gisele Fetterman on immigration, legal cannabis, racism, and more. RSVP FOR FREE


» COVID-19 UPDATE: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, find where to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and sign up for alerts for your county

» Child sex abuse survivors denied legal relief as emergency effort fails

» Ban on meal, lodging payments for Pa. lawmakers resurfaces

Bill that criminalizes spitting on police could mean prison for someone with as little as the common cold 

A bill moving through the Pennsylvania legislature that would criminalize spitting on a police officer is partially predicated on junk science, and public health experts warn could harshly punish people who are sick with a cold. 

Anyone who knowingly has a communicable disease and spits or throws feces, urine, or other bodily fluids on law enforcement could face up to seven years in prison under the measure introduced by Rep. Lou Schmitt (R., Blair). The penalty would be lower for people without an illness.

Currently, spitting on any person can be charged as a summary offense or misdemeanor in Pennsylvania, and Schmitt said his bill offers added protection for police. He fought back against Democratic attempts to limit the scope to only include on-duty officers and to exclude protesters who accidentally spit.

Similar bills have been adopted in other states, where people who are HIV positive have been sentenced to serve more than a decade for spitting on an officer.

The language of Schmitt’s bill is a carbon copy of a Pennsylvania law from the 1990s that makes it a felony for inmates to spit on another person if they are known to have a communicable disease. The statute names HIV and hepatitis B as two examples, even though those viruses can’t be transmitted through saliva. 

“The fact that this passed the ‘laugh test’ by the sponsors and co-sponsors is evidence that there is an urgent need for public health officials to step in and do training on the roots of transmission of infectious diseases,” said Catherine Hanssens, executive director and founder of the Center for HIV Law and Policy in Brooklyn. “It’s kinda indefensible.”

But a closer look at Schmitt’s bill, which passed the state House 146-56 last week, shows the language could end up being used for people with more common viruses such as the flu or even a cold. 

“This bill is remarkably vague,” said Robert Field, a law professor who specializes in public health at Drexel University. “You’re essentially criminalizing being sick.”

Schmitt said the bill’s tougher penalties would deter people from spitting on police officers in the first place. Asked for evidence that harsher punishments have deterred crime, Schmitt said he did not have “any empirical evidence at all that it would deter,” adding, “I don’t know.”

That lack of research has at least one representative calling foul on the bill, saying it’s just another way for district attorneys to stack charges against people. 

“This is an evidence-free bill that does not protect law enforcement,” Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Philadelphia) said. “There’s no proof ever that this has been a deterrent. If it did, the death penalty would have ended violent crime decades ago."

Joseph Darius Jaafari, Spotlight PA

COMMON THREADS: Three Trump supporters who grew up minutes apart in New Jersey were on opposite sides of a U.S. Capitol police barricade on Jan. 6, leaving one dead and the other two charged as insurrectionists, The Inquirer reports. New video of the encounter between suspects Julian Khater of State College, George Tanios, and deceased Police Officer Brian Sicknick was published by The New York Times yesterday.

SCIENTIFIC DOUBT: One expert estimates 90% of Pennsylvania's Amish and Mennonite families have had at least one member infected with COVID-19, achieving what no other community in the U.S. has: herd immunity. Other experts dispute the latter claim, saying even if true, herd immunity doesn't offer permanent protection. “It’s not a switch that once it gets thrown, you’re good. It’ll wear off,” an epidemiologist told LancasterOnline.

ABORTION BILLS: Pieces of legislation that would impose heightened restrictions on abortion access in Pennsylvania are expected to be introduced as early as next month, PennLive reports. They include a so-called heartbeat bill and one prohibiting abortions over a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. Critics call the effort misguided and ill-timed, especially during a public health crisis. They would be unlikely to get past Gov. Tom Wolf.

POLICING FAILURES: Philadelphia's now-infamous corralling of Black Lives Matter protesters on I-676 is front and center in a New York Times report on U.S. policing errors seen during last summer's George Floyd-inspired demonstrations. The report says history may soon repeat, with more protests possible as the trial of a former police officer charged in Floyd’s death gets underway

 'NO EVIDENCE': Viral Erie election fraud claims remain unfounded after a Postal Service probe into reports of backdated 2020 presidential ballots there came up empty, the Associated Press reports. Local officials are busy preparing for new elections now and warning Pennsylvania's tight mail-in ballot deadlines again threaten logistical nightmares and voter disenfranchisement.

» AP: State Sen. Regan recovering after crash

» COURIER TIMES: Pa. marijuana arrests went up during pandemic

» MORNING CALL: Allentown council vows 'war on slumlords'

» PENNLIVE: Pa. gun control advocates, foes clash after mass shootings

» USA TODAY NETWORK: Toomey stops stimulus debt collector ban

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org. Love the riddler? Chip in and become a member of Spotlight PA so we can keep the good times rolling.

PLAIN ENGLISH (Case No. 85): What English (read: British) word is pronounced the same even after you remove four of its five letters?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Elizabeth was drinking coffee. Note the two "E"s in her name, the word coffee, and the names of the other coffee drinkers.
Congrats to Christine J., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: George S., Gabriel D., Michael H., Edward F., Parker B., Annette I., David I., William H., Bruce B., Mary B., Joe M., Eileen D., Oscar A., Lynda G., Jon N., and Lou R.
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